In the age of female agency, women are often encouraged to tone down or erase their voice, concerns and opinions so as not to seem shrill or abrasive. Success for women in our male-dominated culture and industry too often comes only through sublimating our apparently erratic, hysterical identities. You don’t have to look long to find a young actress compelled into demure, submissive onscreen roles that don’t afford them nearly the agency their male counterparts are compulsively given.
Enter Always Shine, Sophia Takal’s sharp dissection of the compromise and resentment that patronizing dynamic breeds among young women. Following her debut feature, Green, Takal is again concerned with the reluctant competition of female friendships in a world that favors youth, beauty and compliance. Here the tension builds between two emerging actress, frazzle-haired Beth (Master of Sex‘s Caitlin FitzGerald) and sleek, steely Anna (Halt-and-Catch-Fire‘s Mackenzie Davis), both introduced in intense close-up, their beautiful faces scrutinized as we, too, investigate whether they’re being authentic or artificial. It’d be naive to presume either’s always the latter; callous to assume the former. Under such excessive surveillance, some degree of performance has got to be assimilated into identity.
Their disappointments and frustrations get to sufficiently air out as the two travel to Big Sur together. Without men placing expectations upon them, they nonetheless begin scrutinizing each other with skepticism and growing resentment. For Beth, it’s Anna’s compulsion to fiercely speak her mind, regardless of consequence, that leaves her feeling criticized and intimidated be her voracious friend. Meanwhie Anna displays simultaneous contempt and jealousy at the the success of Beth’s “lilting wallflower” persona, regardless of talent. Discussing her fear of hitting 30 without a breakthrough work is the rare moment of empathy and understanding the two share.
Irritation, though, soon gives way to casual betrayal as their relationship erodes and their identities are altogether upended. Reaching the shattering point of their friendship and, seemingly, the film’s narrative, Takal and screenwriter Lawrence Michael Levine (also Takal’s real life partner) suddenly stage a mind-bending coup that brings the film’s own construction into focus. When a production slate flashes sporadically onscreen, it registers less as indulgence than a cue that the actresses are about to be submerged, Berberian Sound Studio style, into the meaty genre film they both dream of starring in.
Without giving much away, neither is the same when they rise to the surface, their identities cathartically re-purposed, but neither is free from the expectations forced upon them, by men and each other. As one embraces the thrills and compromises of the role newly thrust upon her, the other seems to fade away altogether into a vague reflection of herself. Even in as generous a two-hander as this, only one can shine.
It’s to their credit that both FitzGerald and Davis leave such brightly indelible impressions, even while literally fighting for our adoration. As ostensibly shy and reserved as FitzGerald’s Beth appears to be, she frequently reveals her aptitude for ruthless self-preservation. Davis’ work is evidently something of the opposite, brash and bold at the first blush, but with socio-performative anxieties scalding beneath the surface. The two keep our fractured sense of allegiances fixed in uncertainty long after the film’s close.
Not content showcasing any single craft or performance, Takal allows for so much ripe experimentation below the line that it’s breathtaking that her voice still comes through so commanding. Her style heightened by hyper-sensuous hot flashes of De Palma and Lynchian lapses of unsettled identity, her clear influences never overshadow her singular focus and curiosity about her characters. Perhaps her most genre-indebted image comes at the precipice of the film’s third act, with D.P. Mark Schartzbard’s camera so intensely focused on FitzGerald’s Beth in total meltdown mode that it ends up reeling back and forth to capture her growing paranoia. Even then, Takal’s style seems pitched more towards investigating than toying with her characters.
It’s worth singling out screenwriter Levine’s work, lending dark humor to how Beth and Anna toy ever so subtly with one another, and gifting viewers with the perfect way out of a heady, uncomfortable confrontation: “That’s how you play sassy.” Also critical to the film’s punch-drunk intoxication is White Reindeer director Zach Clark’s editing, filleting the film’s anxious momentum into feverish flashes and conflating the actress’ radiant youth with the roiling beauty of Big Sur. Even at their most manicured and majestic, there are fierce, contradictory elements rippling across the surface. Always Shine is never afraid to dive in, head first, to the film’s face-first anxieties.
Bottom Line: Always Shine is a intoxicating Lynch-by-De-Palma psycho-sensual study of female friendship, identity and the sexist exclusivity of celebrity.